"If it sounds country, man, that's what it is. It's a country song." That's Kris Kristofferson talking, just before launching into "Me And Bobby McGee", one of the greatest country songs -- hell, one of the greatest songs -- ever. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that Kristofferson had to defend himself, but in 1970, when he recorded his self-titled first album, there were plenty of folks in Nashville who just couldn't abide this lanky Texan with the long hair, the gravelly voice, and the fuck-you attitude -- even though half the singers in town were lined up to record his songs. Roger Miller was the first to do so; his 1969 version of "Me And Bobby McGee" made it to #12 on the country charts. Sammi Smith turned the sexually frank "Help Me Make It Through The Night" into a monster hit, and Ray Price did the same with "For The Good Times", Johnny Cash, Kristofferson's friend and champion, had one of his biggest hits with "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down", a wistful hangover ballad. These are soul-baring songs, about real people with pain and suffering and loneliness and regret, looking for something or someone to help them get by. It's clear that Kristofferson was influenced as much by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen as he was by Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. In turn, Kristofferson helped pave the way for artists such as Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, and Steve Earle. To be sure, not every song on Kristofferson is in the same league as "Me And Bobby McGee". "Blame It On The Stones", with its fuzz-tone guitar, driving beat, and social commentary about the "generation gap," sounds horribly dated, as does "The Law Is For Protection Of The People", which is sung from the perspective of a redneck. ("We don't need no hairy-headed hippies/Scaring decent folks like you and me.") Still, they do provide a window into those troubled times -- they're like the answer songs to Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side Of Me". Kristofferson was originally released in April 1970 on Fred Foster's Monument Records and sold just 32,000 copies. But Foster sold the rights to Columbia, which re-released the album as Me And Bobby McGee the following year. It immediately went gold, and Kristofferson became a big star. He even wrote a few more great songs, such as "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)" and "Why Me". But he never quite fulfilled the promise of Kristofferson.